While I certainly did not agree with all of his positions, McCain appeared to be committed to doing what he felt was right and honorable, the political fallout within his own party be damned. As the Republican party moved further and further rightward, and determined to oppose the Democrats on any issue, regardless of logic or consequences, McCain stood out. He worked with Democrats and opposed most of his party on campaign finance reform, normalization of relations with Vietnam, environmental and energy issues, patients' rights, and immigration. He voted against some of the Bush tax cuts. He excoriated Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as "agents of intolerance" and denounced "the politics of slander and division."
Oh Johnny, I hardly know ye.
Because he knew it was the only way to gain the 2008 nomination, McCain has moved relentlessly to the right since the 2004 election. He cozied up to those agents of intolerance, delivering the 2006 commencement address at Falwell's Liberty University. He came out against his own immigration reform bill. In a stunning reversal of his repeatedly stated position on torture, he voted against a ban on "enhanced interrogation techniques," some of which he himself endured in Vietnam. He gave up his opposition to Bush-style tax cuts and now proposes even larger cuts in the face of unprecedented budget deficits and economic upheaval.
Many had hoped that all this simply reflected what he had to do in order to gain enough support within the Republican base to gain the nomination, and that, once the nomination was secured, he would move back to the center. He would drop the mask and turn back into John McCain. But this has not happened. He has given up none of his new positions, and his campaign has been marked by the very sort of duplicitous and underhanded tactics that the Bush organization used to defeat him in 2000, the same "politics of slander and division" that he once denounced.
In recent days it has turned downright scary. Inflamed by Sarah Palin's thinly-veiled "He's not like us" theme, enraged audiences at McCain events have gotten out of control. The crowds, increasingly composed of the most vicious, least tolerant, least informed among us, are hurling insults and even threats at Barack Obama. We hear shouts of "traitor," "treason," "terrorist," even "off with his head" and "kill him"; but the candidates, McCain and Palin, say nothing.
We haven't heard "nigger" yet, but how far off can that be?
At a Wisconsin rally last Friday, a woman said something to which McCain finally reacted.
Woman: I don't trust Obama. I've read about him. He's an Arab.Now, I don't claim to know his thoughts. Maybe he'd just had enough, and his innate sense of honor and integrity required him to say something. Or maybe he felt that he had no choice but to respond because this time it wasn't just an anonymous shout from the crowd but instead was addressed directly to him, on camera. I don't know.
McCain: No ma'am. He's a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that's what this campaign is all about.
But, whatever his motivation was, here was a moment. It was an instant in time when at least partial redemption was possible. It was a moment when he could have shaken everything off, like a dog shaking water off its back, and become the man that we know he can be. He could have said something like this:
No ma'am. No. That is not right. Barack Obama is not an Arab. And by the way, Arabs are not our enemies. The overwhelming majority of Arabs—and Muslims everywhere—are friendly and peaceful men and women who pray to the same God you do. Our enemies are a tiny minority, religious extremists.Maybe if life were scripted by the writers of The West Wing, he would have said that. He certainly could have said more than he did. But he didn't.
Barack Obama is not an Arab. He is not a Muslim. He is not a terrorist. He does not hate America. He is not your enemy; he is as patriotic as I am. He is a good and decent man who has the best interests of all Americans at heart. Barack Obama and I disagree on some issues—but we agree on many more. Your choice should be based on those issues where we disagree and on nothing else.
My friends, I have let this campaign get away from me. I truly believe that I would make the better President, but in my great desire to win this election and lead this country forward I have foolishly accepted some very bad advice. I should have known better. You have seen in my own campaign the very tactics that have been used against me in the past, and I know from my own experience how wrong they are. And in allowing my campaign to run this way I have pandered to extremists and lost the very people I most needed to win the election—the huge majority of reasonable, moderate Americans.
It stops here, my friends. It stops right now. From this moment on, my campaign will focus on the issues, and only on the issues. We will not distort the positions of my opponent, but we will highlight our differences and let you be the judge. We will be truthful about my own positions—and I will be telling you what I really think and plan, not what my campaign advisors tell me to say. It may not be what you some of you want to hear. So be it. But my campaign will be fair, honorable, and truthful, and that is something I can live with, whatever the results might be. I cannot do otherwise any longer.
It probably would have been too late to save his campaign, but at least he would have been able to sleep at night.